The fact that I’m a voracious reader is probably no surprise to folks who frequent this site. But what might be less obvious is that I rarely read in private. Time spent completely alone is usually devoted to stuff related to musical composition and/or analysis, things that seem far more difficult to accomplish in the company of others, despite Mozart’s ability to compose while playing billiards or all the anecdotes about Ellington jotting down melodies on napkins during dinner parties. So, rather, I carve out my reading time while riding subway trains, mostly from home to the AMC office and back again, which gives me nearly two hours of reading time each day.
The amazing thing about reading in public is that it’s not a completely antisocial activity. Reading has traditionally been perceived as a solitary act whereas listening to music has been a social activity. Ironically, in our current society where ear buds feel ubiquitous, music has become the ultimate anti-social activity, whereas reading can actually be more public. When you read a book in public you’re actually letting people know about it, whereas when you shut out the outside world with headphones you also keep the music to yourself, despite the all too frequent bleed-through of relentlessly repetitive thumping bass grooves. And, whereas plugging up your ears prevents people from communicating with you, sometimes reading in public can lead to interesting conversations.
Case in point: I’ve already had two conversations about the book I’m currently reading, Paul Edwards’s How to Rap, which was published this past December by Chicago Review Press. No, I haven’t decided to fundamentally change my personal compositional direction, but I like to keep abreast of as much music information as I possibly can and the advance press on the book piqued my curiosity. Dana Gioia called Edwards the “Aristotle of hip-hop,” and the book is something of a hip-hop poetics which is informed by interviews with over 100 MCs. Although I wish the book would go deeper into analyzing the rhythmic structures of freestyle flows—Edwards’s alleged “first-ever notational system for rap” seems too imprecise—it has proven to be an entertaining and educational read thus far.
Anyway, last Thursday, right after I started reading the book, a fellow subway commuter came up to me and asked, “Yo, where’d you get that book?” And we proceeded to have a brief conversation about it. Then last night, someone else came up to me and asked, “Hey, can I see who wrote that?” Which led to a serious conversation about hip-hop scholarship during which I learned about KRS-One’s sadly now out-of-print The Science of Rap, which attempted ten years ago to do the same thing as this book did.
Admittedly, I did not receive a single comment when I was reading Joseph Polisi’s wonderful biography of William Schuman (whose music is the centerpiece of this week’s Focus Festival at Juilliard) or even Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise or any of the fiction I read, which actually constitutes most of my reading. There’s something about hip-hop that still grabs people’s attention more than just about anything else. Yet, bizarrely, reading about it has become a more advocational activity than listening to it, which somehow seems wrong to me.